Etiquette Origins: Escort Cards

Via Flickr

Escort cards are probably the easiest part of the wedding to DIY and you can be incredibly creative with them. Via Flickr

I was very confused for a while when I first started reading wedding websites (erm, for research for friends weddings and this here etiquette website) and people kept referring to escort cards. At this stage in my life I had not been to many weddings so I was like “what’s an escort card?” If you also do not know, an escort card is the little card with your name on it that you find at the entrance to the reception that tells you what table you are to sit at. This is a modern alternative to the more traditional seating chart or a simple place card at your seat (why doesn’t anyone do these anymore???) The most confusing thing about escort cards, to me, was the name. Sure they tell you where you are supposed to sit, but they aren’t ESCORTING you there. It seemed like a very active verb for such a passive way of getting you to your seat.

It turns out that escort cards have a previous etiquette life where they made a lot more sense.

Back in the Downton Abbey type of era, for a fancy dinner all the guests would meet outside the dining room before the meal started. When dinner was ready, the butler would say that dinner was served. Then all the guests would line up two by two, boy and girl, like little ducks and march into the dining room. To complicate things, in England (and other places??), every single person had a rank and that rank HAD to determine where they would sit at dinner and in what order they would march in. Hostesses literally had to hire people and buy giant books to tell them what order their guests had to go in. So after putting all that work in, the hostess couldn’t let the guests bungle it up by choosing who to walk in with. So, the escort card was invented to tell men which lady they would be ESCORTING (active verbs for active actions!) into the dining room and what order they would be in. These would be shown to the men discreetly or handed to them when they arrived for dinner.

And now we have Pinterest to tell us that we are never going to be good enough, even with some stupid scraps of paper.

Alternative history: The Art of Manliness has a fascinating post describing escort cards as a cheeky way that 19th century men asked women out on dates.

The Manners of Downton Abbey: A Review

If you didn’t watch the Downton Abbey Season Five US premier live on PBS, you might not have caught this little gem of a documentary that directly followed it. The Manners of Downton Abbey follows Alastair Bruce, the historical advisor for the series, as he helps the cast navigate every little detail of proper Downton etiquette.

Bruce explains how all the details of manners, dress, etc tells everyone everything they needed to know about who you were and were basically as natural as breathing to the people who lived them. He also notes how difficult it is to get the cast to follow the rules in a natural way, because it goes against all the ways modern people act.

The special is divided into five sections:

How to Eat

The dining room is practically the showcase for etiquette and thus is a perfect place to start.

What’s really great, is how clearly Bruce pays attention to details that are barely even visible in the show. For instance, it was proper etiquette for women to place their gloves on their laps, under their napkin,while they ate. On the show, the actresses are required to do this even though the viewers would never know that they were there.

Bruce even explains the reasoning behind etiquette- for example, no one was ever supposed to let their back touch the back of the chair. Then why should chairs have backs? So the footmen have something to hold! He even mentions that Nannies used to put knives down the back of the chair to train children not to touch them.

He explains that the manners are especially important at dinner because, having said grace, the table becomes the Lord’s table and it is respectful to be on your best manners with all the best dishes and silver and everything because of that.

It turns out that the art department sets the table the same way a butler in Edwardian times would have- using a ruler! Unlike a butler, they use their fingers to touch the silver- for a real dinner, the staff would wear gloves so as to not leave any finger prints.

They don’t leave out the servants- they are taught the footman choreography for serving and the proper way to serve, stand, and look. Amusingly, they point out that, unlike real servants, the actors have to do all the complicated serving while stepping over electrical cords and filming equipment.

How to Marry

This section is less about etiquette and more about the social structure. They emphasise the importance of marriage for women, in that they have no position of their own, only position given to them by their husband’s position.

There is a fun bit about the debutante’s presentation at court which has extremely exact etiquette rules about how long your train could and how many feathers you had to wear in your hair. The presentation to the King and Queen showed that she was available as a suitable wife, so of course, it was incredibly important.

They discuss Burke’s Peerage, the very thick book that lists all the important aristocrats in Britain- this was important for matchmaking to ensure that all suitors were…suitable.

For the servants- generally they didn’t. It was not allowed between servants and they didn’t have much free time in which to meet new people. For a woman, if one did manage to get married, she would be expected to immediately leave her job. Being married also split a servant’s loyalty and servants really worked best if their only loyalty was to their service.

How to Behave

Formality was the building block of the aristocracy during this time, and they feared that if they showed any weakness or lessening of etiquette, the whole system would crumble around them.

However, they point out that the aristocracy is actually fairly rude to those around them- for practical reasons. If you have a servant handing you something thousands of times a day and you had to thank them each time, it would get ridiculous.

The servants themselves prided themselves on being invisible and perfectly discreet. They wanted the family they worked for to be absolutely above reproach because a servant’s status came from the status of who they worked for.

How to Dress

Clothes didn’t escape the Edwardian’s attention to every detail. Clothing was the most obvious example of who you were. Aristocrat’s clothing was incredibly expensive and detailed to show their status. But then within that there are even more rules- only married women are allowed to wear tiaras, for example.

They have an outfit for every activity and setting, you could only do that if you had plenty of leisure time to be constantly changing clothes. They do point out that as the show moves through time and clothing loosens so do the women gain more freedoms (not to mention literally being more free to breathe as corsets became less tight.) Men did not escape the stiffness of their clothes- most modern people can imagine what it might be like to wear a corset, but they don’t realize that men’s formal wear was very stiff and difficult to move in as well.

Hats and gloves all had their own rules as well, of course.

How to Make Money

This isn’t in the show, but the definition of a gentleman (as a job title) was someone who didn’t have to work for a living, they made money from their holdings and investments. This is, of course, one of the key plot points in Downton Abbey, how to maintain this lifestyle in a rapidly changing world.

They also discuss “noblesse oblige” (not in those words) but the idea that the lord of the manor provided jobs for everyone who lived there and it was important to keep up the whole staff of servants because if you decided, hey, I don’t need a valet anymore, that meant that that man was now out of a job.


I thought this was a really great program that does really give a strong and accurate insight into how hard they work to pay attention to those details to bring the audience an authentic experience. I was actually really impressed that they have a person doing this for them full time, but I guess it makes sense since there are so many things to keep track of. Alastair Bruce is an incredibly charming host and there was plenty of behind the scenes action, cast interviews, and hilarious clips from the show (prominently featuring Maggie Smith’s commentary on all things etiquette.) I highly highly recommend it for fans of Downton Abbey and all etiquette buffs.

If you didn’t catch it, you can watch the full thing on the PBS website here.

Thank Goodness We Don’t Have To Do That Anymore: Figure Out Which Servants We Need

And yet people still feel guilty about having someone in to clean their house once a week.

So you’re thinking of getting some servants. Do you even know what all the different kinds do? Here’s a handy little guide (if you’re living at Downton Abbey, that is!):

The Different Kinds of Servants:

The Butler:

  • The Butler is the most senior male servant, but he is only a butler if there is other staff below him. A single male servant with no other servants in the house is called a houseman (and is mostly called a houseman if he is part of a husband and wife team of servants, though you could call him a butler.)
  • Butler’s Duties:
    • Answering the phone and the door
    • Serves as valet to the men of the house if there is no specific valet
    • Serves the dinner, with help from footmen or maids if there are any.
    • Generally in charge of the dining room and pantry, especially taking care of the wine and silver and choosing which dishes will be used to serve meals.
    • In smaller houses, he does more hands on work, in larger houses he oversees the work of the staff.
  • Butler’s Clothing:
    • Butlers generally wear a normal suit during the day, with perhaps a more formal suit with vest and tail coat in the afternoon. After 6pm, the butler wears a dress suit with a vest, white tie, and tails. A butler is distinguished from the gentlemen of the house by the simplicity of his suit and lack of all jewelry and adornments.

The Valet

  • Valet’s Duties:
    • It is always pronounced val-ET and not val-AY. Beau Brummel called the valet the “gentlemen’s gentleman”. (Do you guys know about Beau Brummel? I think he needs a post of his very own!)
    • Helps his employer dress
    • Manages his clothing, shopping, keeping everything repaired and shoes shined.
    • Often does things like making travel/restaurant/theater reservations
    • Packs and unpacks luggage for the male members of the household and any male guests.
  • Valet’s Clothing:
    • A regular, dark business suit


  • Footmen’s Duties:
    • Footmen are the male servants who help the butler serve meals
    • They also help clean, especially heavier tasks like moving furniture. And especially, in very large houses, one footman, when not serving meals, spent all of his time polishing silver!
    • They also help answer the door
    • In many places, footmen were especially chosen for their looks- they often had to be a particular height and have nice legs (given what they had to wear!)
  • Footmen’s Clothing:
    • Footmen traditionally have a particular livery they wear when serving meals consisting of knee breeches, stockings, and fancy coats. Many very fancy families also had their footmen powder their hair (in the 20th century! in this country! people paid other people to dress up like servants in a French Court EVERY DAY!).
    • Usually a household will have a set of colors- like cream and navy and the footman’s livery and the females servants uniforms will be in those colors.

The Chauffeur

  • Chauffeur’s Duties:
    • Drives the cars and cares for them
    • Often doubles as a butler or gardener/stableman
  • Chauffeur’s Clothing:
    • A strict chauffeur wears a traditional livery.
    • Nowadays, most chauffeurs have multiple duties and wear a regular gray or black suit with a dark tie.

The Housekeeper

  • Housekeeper’s Duties:
    • The Housekeeper is IN CHARGE!
    • She totally runs the household, standing in for the mistress of the house if she is unable or not inclined to do it herself.
    • Housekeepers are treated with great respect and always called Mrs. Lastname (even if she isn’t married!)
  • Housekeeper’s Clothing:
    • She wears dark clothing of her own.

The Social Secretary

  • Secretary’s Duties:
    • Handling much of the household’s business and correspondence.
    • She often does the general bookkeeping and bill paying.
    • In households without a housekeeper, she often takes on many of those duties, such as meal planning.
    • She helps with party planning- guest lists, menus, invitations, etc.
  • Secretary’s Clothing:
    • She wears her own clothing.

The Cook and Kitchen Maid:

  • Kitchen Duties:
    • A professional cook only cooks. She will also keep control of the kitchen and see that it is properly stocked. She often does the shopping. She collaborates with the mistress of the house on menus.
    • In larger households, there might be a second cook who mostly cooks for the servants and only helps the main cook with simple dishes.
    • The kitchen maid assists the cook, especially prep work and does the washing up.
  • Kitchen Clothing:
    • The cook wears her own white dress, white stockings, and neutral shoes.
    • The kitchen maid wears the same short sleeved uniform dress as the rest of the servants with an apron over it.

The Parlor Maid:

  • The Parlor Maid’s Duties:
    • The parlor maid takes care of cleaning the downstairs rooms. She might also answer the phone and the door.
    • Sometimes she might also help serve meals and wash up.
  • The Parlor Maid’s Clothing:
    • The parlor maid wears the uniform dress of all the servants with an apron. In some houses, the maids also might wear some kin. Don’t you wish you could have this many people doing every little thing for you?

The Lady’s Maid:

  • Lady’s Maid Duties:
    • The lady’s maid has many of the same duties as the valet: tending to the clothing and person of the lady of the house.
    • She draws baths, lays out clothing, does mending, sometimes does the laundry of just the lady’s clothing.
    • Often she does the hair and nails of her mistress.
  • Lady’s Maid Clothing:
    • A lady’s maid may wear her own dark clothing or she may wear the uniform of the other maids.

The Chambermaid (or Housemaid):

  • Chambermaid’s Duties:
    • The chambermaid is in charge of all the bedrooms of the house.
    • She makes the beds and cleans the upstairs rooms
    • She makes sure the bathrooms are clean after every use.
    • She is in charge of the linen room and makes sure it is all clean and mended. She collects the family’s laundry.
  • Chambermaid Clothing:
    • She wears the same uniform dress as the other female servants.